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Selma, Obama, and the bridge that goes on forever

In the greatest speech of his presidency, Obama in Selma reminded us of how far we've come and how many more bridges we have to cross.

I'd like to tell you my own memories of crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, some 31 years ago. But the truth is that -- as large as the bridge looms in America's consciousness, and its conscience -- my trips through Dallas County as a young reporter for the Birmingham News in the early 1980s were quick and my memories of that iconic town are kind of hazy. It's a small town -- just a handful of red lights -- for such a large role in American history, but maybe that's the point, that social change is where you find it. How many of us had heard of Ferguson, Mo., this time last year?

I am fairly certain that I whipped across the bridge in my cramped (and not air conditioned!) Dodge Colt on at least one occasion to frantically catch the motorcade of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 1984 presidential candidate. It's hard to recall now in the era of Barack Obama, but Jackson's campaign was truly historic -- the first black candidate to win primaries and delegates and be taken seriously on the national stage. Focused heavily on Alabama in the large "Super Tuesday" that year, Jackson -- whose very first act of activism was the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march -- worked the state's rich tapestry of civil rights history. He spoke steps away from the so-called "schoolhouse door" at the University of Alabama where George Wallace (still governor then, by the way) failed to prevent integration in 1963, and under cover of darkness outside a church in Marion, the small town where Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered during the Selma protests.

I was a 25-year-old near-rookie reporter, and I was somewhat awestruck. Of course Jackson was a flawed messenger -- that was clear then, much clearer now -- but what a message: An African-American seeking the White House in a state where less then 20 years earlier black people could not register to vote. Jackson's campaign celebrated that past, but it didn't celebrate for long because there was so much more work to be done. The long tail of backlash had put Ronald Reagan in the White House by the 1980s, and programs that could have helped Alabama's poor were under the knife. Jackson told the Democratic convention that summer that "the South, I tell you, is unnaturally conservative. The South is the poorest region in our nation and, therefore, [has] the least to conserve. In his appeal to the South, Mr. Reagan is trying to substitute flags and prayer cloths for food, and clothing, and education, health care, and housing."

In other words, The Struggle has brought amazing victories. And yet The Struggle goes on. It's not a mixed message. It's the message.

Flash forward another 31 years to 2015. So much has changed. Now, an African-American is the incumbent president, the reality that barely flickered in 1984 and was unthinkable in 1965. Perhaps just as importantly, there are a slew of black sheriffs, county commissioners and other local elected officials in the communities where blacks had so recently been terrorized just for trying to register to vote. Schools are integrated -- officially, anyway -- and people of all races work together and dine in the same restaurants.

And yet at the core, so many things haven't changed -- at least when you look deeper. Poverty, in the rural South and elsewhere, is not that much better than when Lyndon Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" in 1964. The moral arc of voting -- sadly, incredibly -- is bending in the wrong direction, with voter ID laws and a Supreme Court gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was won by the Selma marchers. Integration of schools as mandated by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Ed ruling may be the law, but inequality among school districts is an American scandal. Black people and other people of color got harassment and unequal treatment from law enforcement in 1965, and -- thanks to stop-and-frisk policies, unequal drug enforcement and shocking levels of incarceration -- not really that much has changed here, either.

The Struggle has brought amazing victories. And yet The Struggle goes on. That eternal truth was the tightrope that President Obama had to walk Saturday when he stepped up to a podium at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, exactly 50 years to the minute from when Alabama troopers beat back peaceful marchers with tear gas and billy clubs. Obama responded with greatest speech of his presidency, the best American speech of the 21st Century, and one that will likely live on in history books.

In the address, the president defined for the ages what is truly exceptional about being American. Here is an excerpt:

We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing's changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing's changed. Ask your gay friend if it's easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the "race card" for their own purposes. We don't need the Ferguson report to know that's not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.

We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won. We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth. "We are capable of bearing a great burden," James Baldwin once wrote, "once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is."

There's nothing America can't handle if we actually look squarely at the problem. And this is work for all Americans, not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.

It was a densely layered speech, rich with meaning. Another passage that resonated was when he said that progress "requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That's America." Please read the whole thing, but also think about the ways that -- despite the celebration this weekend, despite the presence of the current Democratic president, a former Republican one, the incumbent GOP governor of Alabama and a daughter of George Wallace -- we still haven't overcome. Consider the fact that an American quasi-police state in the 21st Century makes it less likely that protesters would be allowed to march from Selma to Montgomery. That's appalling.

I was a little sad on Saturday not to be in Selma on such a momentous occasion, but Obama's rousing speech was a reminder that Selma is really a state of mind -- its power much greater than a brief anniversary weekend. There's an Edmund Pettus Bridge to cross in places like Ferguson and Miami Gardens, Fla. -- the so-called "stop-and-frisk capital of America" -- to restore policing where black citizens are treated as citizens and now as cash cows to be buried under a blizzard of summons. There's an Edmund Pettus Bridge to cross from the Supreme Court to the steps of Capitol Hill, where it's just as important for Congress to strengthen the Voting Rights Act in 2015 as it was to enact it in 1965. There's an Edmund Pettus Bridge to cross right here in Philadelphia, where a predominantly black and Latino school district has been systematicallly starved to death.

The good news, to echo President Obama's words. is that we can all start marching across our bridge, right now, wherever we are. It was a one-of-a-kind rock band from the Deep South, the Allman Brothers, which famously sang that "the road goes on forever" -- but so, too, does the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That road, that difficult crossing, is the American way.